Apple Threatened Me With Legal Action For Selling a Broken Step From Their New York Store On eBay

Last week we posted an eBay auction where the seller—an ex-employee of Apple—was selling a broken step from the Fifth Ave New York Apple store. Threatened with legal action, he was forced to remove it. Here's his story.

Hi. Iʼm Mark Burstiner. I host a show called The Circuit. Iʼm an all around geek, Iʼm a project manager on a freelance basis, and I consult in digital strategy. I want to talk to you about a story thatʼs still unfolding.

It may seem trite, but for me, itʼs about the principle at this point. I also want to thank Gizmodo for taking this story, and allowing me to publish it in my own words. Multi billion dollar corporations should not be able to bully an innocent ex-employee into cooperation, especially when the corporations are at fault.

A year and a half ago, I was an Apple employee at the Fifth Ave flagship store. In that time, there was a silly, unfortunate accident. A woman came down the magnificent spiral staircase, and dropped a Snapple bottle. Yes, a Snapple bottle. After bouncing once or twice, the bottle severely cracked one of the steps. Since these steps are so well engineered, the structural integrity of the step wasn't compromised, but it was certainly a cosmetic problem. Later that month, four or five very big men came to replace the step with a new one. After they were finished, and the steps that were replaced were out on the curb, I left the store. Off the clock and in civilian clothes, I asked the contractors who were there on behalf of Seele, the manufacturer, if I could have a step. "It could be a collectible some day," I said. They, of course, saw no problem with it, and even collectively helped me lift it into a vehicle. That is the story of how I came to be in possession of a step from the spiral staircase at Apple Fifth Ave.

Fast forward to six days ago, February 20, 2010. Iʼve been cleaning up my apartment, because Iʼm going to be moving soon, and I realized I really didn't want to move (for the third time) with this step. It should be about time I put it up on eBay, see if anybody wants it and see if I canʼt make some cash to help with moving at the same time. That makes sense, right? I mean people end up with rare memorabilia all the time. After all, I did procure it through totally legitimate means. I asked for permission from the person whoʼs possession it was in. They helped me lift it into the vehicle for chrissakes. We should be all hunky dory, right? Wrong.

The very next day, the eBay posting got a lot of press, and it even ended up here on the Giz. Not 24 hours later, the stair was up to $255, dozens of eBay questions, and 200+ watchers with 9 days to go on the auction. Things were looking good until I was reached out to by a Seele VP. This gentleman informed me that Apple has caught wind of this and is quite unhappy. He requested I remove the eBay listing so that we may work this out when we both had more time. Of course, Iʼm a reasonable guy, so I complied immediately.

Later that same day, we spoke again. He assured me he was doing me a favor by reaching out to me and requesting that I remove the posting and return the glass step. He repeatedly made the point that if I complied that he would be so kind as so email Apple and tell them Iʼve been cooperative. "Oh, how magnanimous of you," I thought to myself. As tempting as it might be to relinquish what is now my property, I passed on the offer.

The VP continuously threatened me with "thousands of dollars in legal fees" because both Seele and Apple would not hesitate to take legal action. Even after repeated explanations of how I came into possession of the step, he continued to mitigate for Apple and attempt to make the point that it was Appleʼs position that since I was on Apple payroll as an employee (part-time, non-exempt, off the clock, out of uniform), that requesting the step was on par with giving a direct order to the contractor. That, if you will pardon my language, is bullshit. I donʼt buy it. He proceeded to assure me that Apple would take the position that anything that began in its stores is Appleʼs property. Frankly, Apple can take any stance they like, it doesn't change the facts.

This man then attempted to convince me that if I were to move forward with not relinquishing the step, that it would be my responsibility in a court of law to prove that I had not stolen it. This, again, is bullshit. In the United States, we are innocent until proven guilty. If Apple would like to attempt to prove that I managed to wrestle a 250lb step from the five very large men handling it, then they are on the good drugs, and I want to know where I can get some.

What this sounds like to me is Seele trying to save face because Apple is furious that they were irresponsible enough to relinquish ownership of the tread. Though it may be embarrassing for both corporations, it may simply be a lesson learned at a high price. Let me put it this way: If you caught a foul ball at a World Series game, got it signed by a player, received a high five from the security guard on the way out of the stadium, and went home, that ball is now yours, right? It started as one entityʼs property, and through a series of consensual transactions, it ended up in your hands. Now, letʼs say a year and a half later, the player who signed it is huge, and you decide to put it up for auction. If the MLB reached out to you and said, "Hey! No way, buddy. That was OURS. Hand it over!" Guess what? That wouldn't fly.

The next day, we spoke once more over the phone. Again, I heard the same points from the man, but this time I did not take a passive approach. I made it quite clear that if he wanted the step, heʼs more than welcome to purchase it from me, or participate in the eBay auction. He made me an offer lower than the most recent bid on the auction, and I declined. At this point, Iʼve lost time and money due to dealing with this. Not to mention, now that the step has seen some press, the demand is growing. (Iʼve been receiving eBay messages all the way up until this morning.) He assured me if I did not comply, my information would be forwarded to Apple, and the conversation ended.

As far as Iʼm aware, I have done nothing illegal. I have not stolen. I have not deceived in any way. The step is not confidential, and it is not IP. The step is the very same that any New Yorker could see by walking into Apple Fifth Ave. The only thing I am guilty of is taking the risk of throwing out my back through having to move the step multiple times. I saw an opportunity, I asked for permission, received it, and proceeded. I wonʼt allow a major corporation to bully me into a corner. At the time of this posting, it has been seven full days since I put the listing up, and I havenʼt heard from Apple directly a single time. I have every right to sell my property, and I plan to do so.

Hereʼs what Iʼm going to do. Iʼve put the tread back up for auction, but have shortened the auction period from 10 days to 3, starting at the same $200 price point and Iʼm dropping the buy-it-now option. I just want to get rid of this thing. If it sells for a lot, great. If it sells for a little, whatever. Either way, Iʼll keep you posted if I hear from Apple or on any other developments.

I realize this has been long-winded, but it was important to me to share this. I just donʼt think itʼs right for corporations to take cases that might otherwise be passed off as trivial and turn them into a week-long ordeal, all for the sake of paranoia. If youʼve read through all this, thank you. I appreciate your attention and time.